Bigger is normally associated with better, but when it refers to the nation’s expanding waistlines, it is certainly not a positive. As consumers enter the road to recovery after an indulgent Christmas, they will be hit by a surge of products that claim to be able to get them back on track.

Products promising to burn fat, satisfy hunger and lower cholesterol are all competing for the consumer who is looking to get into shape. But it seems that the wealth of health claims and advice on offer is leaving consumers flummoxed.

A recent survey by Yakult revealed that consumers are often so saturated with health messages they are not always sure what is good for them. “The survey revealed that people don’t know how much exercise they should be taking and how much salt, water, dairy and calories they should be consuming per day as part of a healthy, balanced lifestyle,” says marketing director Alan Jelly.

The European Union has endeavoured to make things clearer by introducing legislation controlling what can be claimed, but according to a number of manufacturers, this has only served to make matters worse. “There’s a great deal of confusion out there,” says Yoplait marketing director Gerry Roads. “When we go to regulatory bodies for advice, we’re getting different interpretations; we’re putting claims through in terms of advertising that we know are right, while the advertising authorities aren’t sure, or vice versa. There’s a lot of room for interpretation – it’s a real minefield.

“As manufacturers, we are trying to deal with that in a responsible way, but it’s not always easy.”

The health claims legislation is full of potential hazards, adds Alice Cadman, head of strategic projects at United Biscuits UK. “There is a distinct lack of clarity and we will not be allowed to advertise some of the changes we have made to our products.”

What suppliers of healthier products do have on their side is the market dynamic. Independent consumer research shows that in 2007, 59% of consumers claimed to be trying to eat more healthily and said that they were careful about what they ate in order to control their shape, compared with 41% in 2003, and the percentage that said that they “don’t worry about what they eat” had dropped from 30% to 20% [Oxford Research Agency].

There’s no doubt that consumers are taking healthy eating advice on board, states Ryvita category manager Lucy Overton. “We know that consumer awareness of health is still growing: 80% of respondents to a Nielsen Homescan survey said it was important to eat healthily, up from 73% in 2004,” she points out.

Danone’s Feel Fuller For Longer yogurt, which claims to suppress the appetite, is a good example of how a clear marketing message can attract plenty of health-conscious consumers. “The yogurt was originally called Lasting Satisfaction, but the problem was that consumers didn’t really understand it,” says Danone Shape marketing manager Julia Redman. “So we carried out a lot of research to find a message that people would grasp and then we relaunched the product as Feel Fuller For Longer last September. Since then we’ve really seen a sales boost – the product has had the highest-ever four-weekly share of the diet yogurts market with 17.3%.

“I’m not sure if satiety is definitely understood by all consumers, but the message is definitely growing. It’s just a case of speaking to people in their own language and we’ve found a message now that is really working,” she says. “Last October and November we spent £2m on promoting the satiety message. In 2009 we will invest significantly in a marketing campaign to continue educating people.”

Low fat and natural

But while some consumers have embraced functional foods, others prefer a more simplistic offering. Independent research commissioned by Müller UK shows that the health trend is moving on from prescriptive calorie-counting and the structured routine of diet plans to a more holistic, more natural attitude, where people want positive, additional health options. “What people are looking for is a combination of great taste, naturalness and simplicity,” says Müller UK marketing and research and development director Chris McDonough. “In terms of ingredients, their main concerns are focused on fat content, artificial additives, sugar, cholesterol and salt,” he says.

This month sees the introduction of a £7.5m marketing campaign to emphasis the credentials of Müllerlight, which is fat free and contains real fruit. “With new year resolutions and consumers’ intentions to adopt a healthier lifestyle at their peak in January, it represents a prime opportunity,” says McDonough.

Alpro is also aiming to meet the demand for both natural and low-fat foods with its soya products, which contain no artificial colours, preservatives and sweeteners, and are also low in saturated fat. John Allaway, commercial director at Alpro, acknowledges that consumers are looking more towards natural products. “We’ve gone through a functional age in the past three or four years, where people were looking for omega-3, probiotics and so on, but now people are looking for naturally healthy products and that is something we can offer,” he says.

“We’re in the middle of the war zone with other manufacturers trying to claim it, but it’s our responsibility to find that hook to attract people into a soya diet.”

The dual bonuses of being both natural and low in fat could also explain the popularity of rapeseed oil with health- conscious consumers who still want to use fats when cooking. “Two years ago, rapeseed oil was virtually unheard of to most consumers. Now, as more people realise its health benefits, there has been a significant growth in demand,” says Kay Weijers, sales and marketing director of cold-pressed rapeseed oil producer Borderfields. “With almost a tenth of the saturated fat of butter and half of olive oil, rapeseed oil is the healthiest oil to cook with,” she claims.

Campina UK has reflected the current trend by going au naturel with its Yazoo flavoured milk drink. “Customer perceptions about health continually move forward and it is important for us to be at the forefront of these changes,” says managing director John Lee. “Yazoo is already low in fat, with less than 5% added sugar and no preservatives or artificial sweeteners. By moving to a combination of natural flavours and real fruit juice we have raised the standard once again.”

And United Biscuits has redeveloped its McVitie’s Digestives, Rich Tea and Hob Nobs, making a 50% reduction in saturated fats, while avoiding artificial flavours, colours and hydrogenated vegetable oil. “Eating healthily is a key focus for consumers and particularly saturated fat reduction,” says Cadman.

Discover detox

The natural movement is also feeding into another seasonal health trend as consumers ditch drinking and eating to excess for detox in a bid to feel healthier.

"Consumers are increasingly avoiding artificial ingredients and are looking for more natural products with added health benefits. This is in a move to be personally responsible for their health and diet," says Twinings sales director Neil Manders.

Twinings last year launched its Benefit Blends - a selection of all-natural infusions aimed at health-conscious shoppers. The range comprises calm, cleanse, morning detox, recharge, recover and digestif, with each blend aiming to provide a different benefit.

Unilever is also hoping to appeal to detoxing consumers with its green tea range, which is rich in flavonoid antioxidants (which are found in fruit and vegetables). Unilever Beverages senior category manager Adrian Adams says: "Green tea is enjoying strong value growth (+7.8%, AC Nielsen MAT January 26, 2008), well ahead of the total tea category, thanks to the perceived health benefits associated with it."

Another contender for the detox market is Danone Waters. The new year sees the return of Evian's detox campaign, which encourages people to drink water regularly. "Detoxifying the body can improve levels of physical fitness and promote youthfulness," claims Evian brand manager Nicholas Britton. "It can also help improve the appearance of skin and give the body more energy and vitality.

"After the Christmas excesses consumers often feel they've overindulged and the Evian Detox campaign is a chance to give their body a helping hand by encouraging consumers to get into a healthy habit," he says. "People pledge themselves to arduous new year's resolutions, but the simplicity of the Evian Detox is that consumers are not actually giving anything up."